Understanding Your Dog Part 2

Pack or family?

The idea that dogs live in strict dominance hierarchies and that dog behaviour can be prevented or managed by establishing yourself as ‘pack leader’ was well established for many years. However many behaviourists now question how accurate this theory is and even whether it can be harmful. In the first part of this article we reviewed what is meant by being ‘pack leader’ or ‘alpha’ and how supporters suggest it is used to manage dog behaviour. In Part 2 we will look at where this theory originated, how well it stands up in light of the more recent research, why some behaviourists believe it can be detrimental to a dog’s welfare or make some problem behaviours worse, and what alternatives there are.

Where did this idea originate?

dog behaviour

The pack leader theory was based on studies conducted in wolves

The roots of this theory come from research conducted by Rupert Schenkel in the 1930s and 40s. Schenkel studied a group of up to 10 red and grey wolves housed in a 10 x 20 meter enclosure at Basel zoo, Switzerland. He observed a great deal of conflict between the wolves, especially around the breeding season. He also noticed that over time the weaker wolves started to give in to the stronger wolves and that a hierarchy formed giving the stronger wolves priority access to anything of value. This not only included food and breeding rights, but also the social behaviour and even movements of the weaker wolves until they “steadily lost the significance of environmental social partnership (and were) robbed of all social initiative”. Schenkel recognised that the behaviour of the wolves differed from that of wild wolves and that this was caused by stress and captivity. However, he suggested that dogs were also in captivity when owned by people and so they also had the desire to control the behaviour of others to attain the role of ‘pack leader’.

Why do scientists now question this theory?

Schenkel’s studies were fascinating. But they were conducted at a time when our understanding of both human and animal behaviour was in its infancy and our ability to study it was very limited. In the same way as our knowledge of things like medicine, human psychology and technology has changed dramatically in the last 75 years, so has our understanding of animal behaviour. He therefore made interpretations and assumptions that we simply would not make now.

One of the key assumptions he made that is no longer accepted is that living with humans has the same effect on dogs as placing a number of unfamiliar wolves into a tiny enclosure with limited resources and no escape.

It was a time when people assumed that dog behaviour was unchanged from that of wolves and so his assumption was perhaps understandable back then. However, recent research has made fascinating discoveries into how dog behaviour has evolved since domestication and has shown that they not only accept living with people but thrive on it. Therefore living with us in our homes is their natural environment, rather than enforced captivity.

These discoveries only came about because of the advancement of science. For example it is only relatively recently that science enabled us to measure the raised levels of oxytocin – often referred to as the bonding hormone – in the blood of both humans and dogs when they are showing affection to each other. Advances in science have also enabled us to observe how dogs look to the left side of people’s faces when greeting (‘left gaze bias’), in the same way as people do to read the other’s emotional state. It is also only through recent studies comparing the behaviour of dogs and hand reared wolves that we have seen how only dogs have evolved to follow a human point when looking for something or to seek human help when they can’t open a box with food in it. This shows how interdependent we have become.

So what does modern science tell us about do behaviour?

The last 20 years has seen an explosion in research into dogs, both living with people, living in groups in rescue compounds and living ferally. None of this research has seen evidence of a dominance hierarchy in dogs. What it has seen is an emotionally and socially complex species that has evolved to live happily with humans and, in many cases, has lost its self-sufficiency. This doesn’t mean there still aren’t times when dogs behave in ways we don’t want them to. However science now shows us that this is almost always due to either a lack of training, suitable outlets for the dog’s natural behaviour or our inability to understand how they communicate, or due to fear.

So why do some behaviourists feel dominance theory is potentially harmful?

dog behaviour

Dogs don’t understand the ‘pack leader’ theory

Using the ‘pack leader’ approach to manage dog behaviour assumes the dog understands these rules and knows that pulling on the lead, trying to sit on a sofa, controlling food, walking ahead through a doorway or even greeting their owner when they come home from work are challenges to be pack leader. It therefore also assumes that he or she expects to either win or be corrected. However we now know that dogs don’t understand these rules. Therefore as they don’t do these things as a challenge they see their owner’s corrections as unprovoked threats or acts of aggression. Some dogs will make the link and stop pulling, jumping on the sofa or trying to steal food to avoid the correction. However others may not, especially if the owner isn’t consistent. They instead see their owner as threatening and unpredictable. In some dogs this will make them back down and so may seem to cause them to stop showing problem behaviour. However they are in fact avoiding doing anything in case it triggers a punishment and so are often living in fear. Others may react defensively, which has consequences for everyone.

So how do we now recommend managing our dog’s behaviour?

We start by forgetting about explanations of dominance and look at why the dog is really doing what they are doing. We then change their motivation to behave that way. For example we see a dog growling over a bone as a sign they are worried they are going to lose it. We therefore teach them we aren’t going to take away their food once we have given it to them, and to be happy to give things to us for the rare occasions we have to. We see pulling on the lead as a sign the dog is excited to get where he is going and so teach him the quickest way to get there is to make sure his lead is kept slack. We send a dog that is emptying every bowl of water as soon as it put down to their vet to check if he is ill. If he isn’t we would then look into things like bullying from other dogs making him feel that if he doesn’t drink all the water now he won’t get any later, or compulsive behaviours – the dog form of OCD. Interestingly compulsive behaviour often arises when a dog is in some kind of emotional distress. Misuse of pack leader theory can cause emotional distress. So using pack leader based control and corrections could actually be the cause of drinking excessively rather than the cure.